Tensions have mounted in northern Syria since Turkish-FSA Euphrates Shield forces captured the town of al-Bab from the Islamic State (IS) group last week.
Sporadic clashes between FSA and Syrian government forces to the south of al-Bab since then have turned on Wednesday to attacks on Manbij, a city to the east of al-Bab held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Reports of clashes in several villages to the west and northwest of Manbij have been followed by claims by pro-FSA sources that rebels have taken at least three villages from the SDF. Concurrent attacks by the IS group on SDF forces in the southern countryside of Manbij, a majority Arab city, have raised fears of the conflict spiralling out of control.
In the political sphere Turkish officials declared Manbij as being the next phase of the Euphrates Shield operation. Ankara’s increasing ire at what seems like exclusion from the operation to take Raqqa, has found reflection in its rhetoric regarding Manbij. Turkey claims the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a major component of the SDF, and a force Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), poses a threat to its security.
Kom News conducted an exclusive interview with Manbij Military Council spokesperson Shervan Derwish on Wednesday afternoon about these clashes, Turkish officials’ remarks on Manbij and the US position on developments.
Mr. Derwish, what is the current situation regarding clashes in Manbij, where is the fighting going on?
Right now Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group) thugs are attacking from the south of Manbij and the clashes are ongoing, we have five dead bodies belonging to them. Concurrently from the west of Manbij, thugs from the Euphrates Shield backed by the Turkish army have initiated their attacks, they are firing mortars at our positions. Due to clashes between the Euphrates Shield groups and the Syrian Army, thousands of people have come over to Manbij for safety. Both of these attacks have come at the same time, and right now both clashes in the south against Daesh and the west against the Euphrates Shield are ongoing.
Do you think the attacks of IS and the Euphrates Shield are in collaboration right now? And also, what are the casualties of this fight, have the attacking groups taken control of any of your positions?
Well both attacks came at exactly the same time. But they aren’t together; one is from the south and the other is from the west. But the fact that the attacks came at the same time raises questions. As I said, we have possession of five dead bodies of Daesh thugs on the southern front. And on the western front the clashes are still very intense, I do know that a vehicle belonging to the Euphrates Shield groups has been hit.
What do you think the objectives of these attacks are? If these attacks persist, what will be the response of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and what impact will this have on the Raqqa operation?
Our stance is this: we will not attack anyone, but if we are attacked we will defend ourselves. We will defend ourselves to the end. If the attacks persist, of course we will ask for support from other forces. Everyone knows that Manbij was liberated with a joint effort by regional and international powers, everyone played a significant role. Everyone must do what they can to stop these attacks, because if these attacks continue they will have grave consequences for the region. I hope it doesn’t come to this. Although the attacks are very intense right now, I am hopeful that the attacks of the Turkish state and the thugs they are backing will stop. These attacks have no meaning. Manbij is a peaceful city. Anyone that wants to come and see the situation in Manbij can come and see for themselves, our doors are open to everyone. These groups, it seems to me, want to try and impede the Raqqa operation or slow it down.
Are Turkish soldiers also taking part in the attacks?
The Euphrates Shield operation is a Turkish army-backed operation so there are many Turkish soldiers on the ground. Mortar attacks and the use of heavy artillery is being done by Turkish soldiers.
And what is the position of the American soldiers on the ground? There have been reports of American soldiers forming a demarcation line in the north of Manbij, is this true?
It’s true, there are American soldiers just north of Manbij and they come and go into the city and are aware of all the developments. We are waiting for them to clarify their stance on these developments. We want everyone to know that as the Manbij Military Council, we liberated this city from Daesh. On the same day we liberated the city we handed it over to a civilian administration. This civilian administration organised itself, established its institutions, and is now running Manbij. There are hundreds of thousands of people living here now and in the past few months, tens of thousands of people from al-Bab and the surrounding areas have sought refuge in Manbij. Rather than going to other places under the control of other forces, people are choosing to come to Manbij and this says something about the its security and stability.
So why is Turkey-FSA attacking Manbij?
Now there are some forces who are trying to destabilise this peace. They are doing this to destabilise the region and prevent a democratic system from developing here, because it is a threat to their mentality. Through your outlet I want to call upon all international institutions, humanitarian organisations to come and see Manbij for themselves, to see if this city is anything like what the Turkish state claims. The people of Manbij are defending themselves, and the people of Manbij are administering themselves. People should come and compare how Manbij is governed to how Jarablus and Azaz are run under the control of the Turkish army. They should see where people are happier and content. I am hopeful that the world will not remain silent against these attacks, and the international coalition, who we liberated Manbij with, will take a stance against the Turkish state which is wanting to destabilise our city. The world should see that there are certain forces who want to destabilise regions that have been taken back from Daesh. As I said before, we are not the aggressors, we haven’t attacked anyone and don’t plan to. We are just defending ourselves and will do whatever is necessary to defend our city against any hostile force. We are not a hostile force for Turkey. We want good relations with Turkey and are not a threat to them.